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Children in the vicinity of death

As her grandmother passes on, the writer wonders how we should introduce children to the idea of death

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to speaking with children about a death in the family. Photo: Getty Images
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to speaking with children about a death in the family. Photo: Getty Images

My beloved grandmother, about whom I have written before, passed away 10 days ago. With that, I joined the many many of us who have lost a loved one while stuck on the other side of a world shrunken down and broken apart by this pandemic.

We were relatively lucky. My grandmother passed holding the hands of loved ones, surrounded by family, at home, at peace. We got the news when my aunt in Mumbai called us. It was early afternoon on a bleak, cold autumn day in Ithaca, New York, for us. I was in the shower upstairs. I heard my husband’s footsteps approach and in the moments between that and his knock, I thought, “His footsteps sound more urgent than usual.” I took a moment to marvel at how well I know him—a slight change in the cadence of his footsteps could tell me so much. And because of that, by the time he knocked, by the time he spoke, I knew my grandmother had passed.

I rushed down and sat by my mother’s feet as she processed the news. In the playroom, my two- and three-year olds shouted from under some sheets that they were building a rocketship. Then they went quiet, sensing a shift in the air.

They have been in the vicinity of death once before, when my father-in-law passed in New Zealand and we all made it there in time to say our goodbyes. But they were smaller then—one seven weeks old, the other 17 months. Then they were nothing but delighted to have flown from Mumbai to Auckland, to have hours to spend with their aunts and grandmother and cousins. A hospital waiting room (especially the kind they have in New Zealand) to them was no different from a playground. The older one climbed on parked wheelchairs, the younger one did little other than drink milk and sleep in her aunts’ arms.

At Auckland airport, on our way back to Mumbai, my husband and I were grateful that the children had this unexpected time with family. We thanked Dad for forcing us to travel on 12 hours’ notice with two under two and leave all our help behind. He had spoken to us often about shepherding our children through life but I had forgotten a lot of his words in the haze of early motherhood.

Those two weeks in Auckland as we bid him goodbye, I remembered his advice. On the flight back, the seven-week-old drank more milk and slept. The 17-month-old made friends in transit at Singapore airport and ate a piece of broccoli off a stranger’s plate. They asked no questions, we needed to have no answers.

Last week, after the phone call, I looked to my husband, unsure how much or what we were supposed to say to our three- and two-year-old, two small faces registering vulnerability for the first time. They didn’t enter the room in which my parents sat, peering instead from behind the door, the three-year-old asking, “Why is everyone crying?”

Honesty is best, we decided. We told them their great-grandmother, their Mai-Aaji, died. I wiped my tears and sat with them, ready to have a big parenting moment. Our two-year-old handed me a tissue box and toddled off to play. The three-year-old asked some questions, trying to work out what old age meant, and whether youth meant she could play all day. “Yes,” I told her, feeling like a mother out of a book on motherhood. “You just need to focus on playing.”

Today, to mark 10 days since her passing, we cooked all my grandmother’s favourite foods and prepared to turn mourning into celebration. My grandmother loved ice cream most of all. As she got older, she insisted rules no longer applied, and often indulged in only a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Today, on another cold and gloomy autumn day, I served vanilla ice cream with strawberries in cones for my husband, children, and parents. We took a picture to send to the rest of the family, all celebrating our late matriarch through food.

My three-year-old said, “Send the picture to Mai-Aaji.” I suppose I have some more explaining to do.

Diksha Basu is the best-selling author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding.

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